Tomoyuki Yamashita (山下 奉文, Yamashita Tomoyuki, November 8, 1885 – February 23, 1946) was an Imperial Japanese Army general during World War II. At the forefront of the invasion of Malaya and Singapore, his accomplishment of conquering Malaya and Singapore in 70 days led to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, calling the ignominious fall of Singapore to the Japanese the "worst disaster" and "largest capitulation" in British military history. The accomplishment earned Yamashita the sobriquet "The Tiger of Malaya". After the war, following a trial in Manila, he was found guilty of war crimes and executed by hanging for his troops' conduct during the Japanese defense of the occupied Philippines in 1944.
Yamashita was the second son of a local doctor in Osugi, a village in what is now part of Ōtoyo, Kōchi Prefecture, Shikoku. He attended military preparatory schools in his youth.
Early military career
In November 1905 Yamashita graduated from the 18th class of the Imperial Japanese Army Academy. He was ranked 16th out of 920 cadets. In December 1908 he was promoted to lieutenant and fought against the German Empire in Shantung, China in 1914. In May 1916 he was promoted to captain. He attended the 28th class of the Army War College, graduating sixth in his class in 1916.
He married Hisako Nagayama, the daughter of retired Gen. Nagayama, in 1916. Yamashita became an expert on Germany, serving as assistant military attaché at Bern, Switzerland, and Berlin, Germany from 1919–22.
In February 1922 he was promoted to major. He twice served in the Military Affairs Bureau of the War Ministry responsible for the Ugaki Army Reduction Program, which was aimed at reforming the Japanese army by streamlining its organisation, despite facing fierce opposition from factions within the army itself.
In 1922, on his return to Japan, Maj. Yamashita served in the Imperial Headquarters and the Staff College, receiving promotion to lieutenant-colonel in August 1925. While posted to the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff, Yamashita unsuccessfully promoted a military reduction plan. Despite his ability, Yamashita fell into disfavor as a result of his involvement with political factions within the Japanese military. As a leading member of the "Imperial Way" group, he became a rival to Hideki Tōjō and other members of the "Control Faction". In 1927 Yamashita was posted to Vienna, Austria, as a military attaché until 1930. He was then promoted to the rank of Colonel. In 1930 Col. Yamashita was given command of the elite 3rd Imperial Infantry Regiment. (Imperial Guards Division). He was promoted to major-general in August 1934.
After the February 26 Incident of 1936, he fell into disfavor with Emperor Hirohito due to his appeal for leniency toward rebel officers involved in the attempted coup. He realized that he had lost the trust of the Emperor and decided to resign from the Army--a decision that his superiors dissuaded him from carrying out. He was eventually relegated to a post in Korea, being given command of a brigade. Akashi Yoji argued in his article "General Yamashita Tomoyuki: Commander of the Twenty-Fifth Army" that his time in Korea gave him the chance to reflect on his conduct during the 1936 coup and at the same time study Zen Buddhism, something which caused him to mellow down in character yet instilled a high level of discipline for himself.
Yamashita was promoted to lieutenant-general in November 1937. He insisted that Japan should end the conflict with China and keep peaceful relations with the United States and Great Britain, but he was ignored and subsequently assigned to an unimportant post in the Kwantung Army.
From 1938-40 he was assigned to command the IJA 4th Division which saw some action in northern China against insurgents fighting the occupying Japanese armies. In December 1940 Yamashita was sent on a six-month clandestine military mission to Germany and Italy, where he met with Adolf Hitler on 16 June 1941 in Berlin as well as Benito Mussolini.
Throughout his time in the military he had consistently urged the implementation of his proposals, which included "streamlining the air arm, to mechanise the Army, to integrate control of the armed forces in a defence ministry coordinated by a chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, to create a paratroop corps and to employ effective propaganda". Such strategies caused much friction between himself and Gen. Hideki Tojo, the War Minister, who was not keen on implementing these proposals.
World War II
Malaya and Singapore
On 6 November 1941 Lt. Gen. Yamashita was put in command of the Twenty-Fifth Army. It was his belief that victory in Malaya would be successful only if his troops could make an amphibious landing—something that was dependent on whether he would have enough air and naval support to provide a good landing site.
On 8 December he launched an invasion of Malaya from bases in French Indochina. Yamashita remarked that only a "driving charge" would ensure victory in Malaya. This is because the Japanese force was about one-third of what the British had in Malaya and Singapore. The plan was to conquer Malaya and Singapore in the shortest time possible in order to overcome any numerical disadvantage, as well as to minimize any potential losses from a long, drawn-out battle.
The Malayan campaign concluded with the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, in which Yamashita's 30,000 front-line soldiers captured 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops, the largest surrender of British-led personnel in history. He became known as the "Tiger of Malaya".
The campaign and the subsequent Japanese occupation of Singapore included war crimes committed against captive Allied personnel and civilians, such as the Alexandra Hospital and Sook Ching massacres. Yamashita's culpability for these events remains a matter of controversy, as some argued that he had failed to prevent them. However, Yamashita had the officer who instigated the hospital massacre, and some soldiers caught looting, executed for these acts, and he personally apologized to the surviving Alexandra Hospital patients. This was in line with Yamashita's personality and belief, as Akashi Yoji argued, that the first orders given by Yamashita to the soldiers was "no looting; no rape; no arson". and that any soldier committing such acts would be severely punished and his superior held accountable.
Nevertheless, Yamashita's warnings to his troops were generally not heeded, and wanton acts of violence were reported. In his article, Yoji argued that the main issue was that despite being an excellent tactician and leader, his personal ideals constantly placed him at odds with the General Staff and War Ministry. His humane treatment of prisoners of war as well as British leaders was something the other officers had difficulty coming to terms with.
Despite the finger of blame for the Sook Ching Massacre being pointed at Yamashita, it was now argued that he had no direct part in it and that it was in fact his subordinates who were behind the incident. A study by Ian Ward concluded that Yamashita should not be held responsible for the Sook Ching Massacre, but Ward did hold him responsible "for failing to guard against Tsuji's manipulation of Command affairs"
On 17 July 1942, Yamashita was reassigned from Singapore to far-away Manchukuo again, having been given a post in commanding the First Area Army, and was effectively sidelined for a major part of the Pacific War. It is thought that Tōjō, by then the Prime Minister, was responsible for his banishment, taking advantage of Yamashita's gaffe during a speech made to Singaporean civilian leaders in early 1942, when he referred to the local populace as "citizens of the Empire of Japan" (this was considered embarrassing for the Japanese government, who officially did not consider the residents of occupied territories to have the rights or privileges of Japanese citizenship). He was promoted to full general in February 1943.
In 1944, when the war situation was critical for Japan, Yamashita was rescued from his enforced exile in China by the new Japanese government after the downfall of Hideki Tōjō and his cabinet, and he assumed the command of the Fourteenth Area Army to defend the occupied Philippines on 10 October. The U.S. forces landed on Leyte on 20 October, only ten days after Yamashita's arrival at Manila. On 6 January 1945, the Sixth U.S. Army, totalling 200,000 men, landed at Lingayen Gulf in Luzon.
Yamashita commanded approximately 262,000 troops in three defensive groups; the largest, the Shobu Group, under his personal command numbered 152,000 troops, defended northern Luzon. The smallest group, totaling 30,000 troops, known as the Kembu Group, under the command of Tsukada, defended Bataan and the western shores. The last group, the Shimbu Group, totaling 80,000 men under the command of Yokoyama, defended Manila and southern Luzon. Yamashita tried to rebuild his army but was forced to retreat from Manila to the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Luzon, as well as the Cordillera Central mountains. Yamashita ordered all troops, except those tasked with security, out of the city.
Almost immediately, Imperial Japanese Navy Rear Admiral Sanji Iwabuchi re-occupied Manila with 16,000 sailors, with the intent of destroying all port facilities and naval storehouses. Once there, Iwabuchi took command of the 3,750 Army security troops, and against Yamashita's specific order, turned the city into a battlefield. The battle and the Japanese atrocities resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Filipino civilians, in what would be later known as the Manila massacre, during the fierce street fighting for the capital which raged between February 4 and March 3.
Yamashita would continue to use delaying tactics to maintain his army in Kiangan (part of the Ifugao Province), until 2 September 1945, several weeks after the surrender of Japan. At the time of his surrender, his forces had been reduced to under 50,000 by the lack of supplies and tough campaigning by elements of the combined American and Filipino soldiers including the recognized guerrillas. Yamashita surrendered in the presence of Generals Jonathan Wainwright and Arthur Percival, both of whom had been prisoners of war in Manchuria. Percival had surrendered to Yamashita after the Battle of Singapore.
From 29 October to 7 December 1945, an American military tribunal in Manila tried General Yamashita for war crimes relating to the Manila massacre and many atrocities in the Philippines and Singapore against civilians and prisoners of war, such as the Sook Ching massacre, and sentenced him to death. This controversial case has become a precedent regarding the command responsibility for war crimes and is known as the Yamashita Standard.
The principal accusation against Yamashita was that he had failed in his duty as commander of Japanese forces in the Philippines to prevent them from committing atrocities. The defense acknowledged that atrocities had been committed but contended that the breakdown of communications and the Japanese chain of command in the chaotic battle of the second Philippines campaign was such that Yamashita could not have controlled his troops even if he had known of their actions, which was not certain in any case; furthermore, many of the atrocities had been committed by Japanese naval forces outside his command.
During his trial, the defense attorneys who challenged U.S. General Douglas MacArthur deeply impressed General Yamashita with their dedication to the case, and reaffirmed his respect for his former enemies. American lawyer Harry E. Clarke, Sr., a colonel in the United States Army at the time, served as the chief counsel for the defense. In his opening statement, Clarke asserted:
For his part Yamashita denied he had knowledge of the crimes committed by his men, and claimed that he would have harshly punished them if he had had that knowledge. Further, he argued that with an army as large as his, there was no way for him to control all actions by all his subordinates. As such he felt what he was really being charged with was losing the war:
The court found Yamashita guilty as charged and sentenced him to death. Clarke appealed the sentence to General MacArthur, who upheld it. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of the Philippines and the Supreme Court of the United States, both of which declined to review the verdict.
The trial was not without criticism. In dissent from the Supreme Court of the United States's majority, Justice W.B. Rutledge wrote:
The legitimacy of the hasty trial was questioned at the time, including by Justice Frank Murphy, who protested various procedural issues, the inclusion of hearsay evidence, and the general lack of professional conduct by the prosecuting officers. The considerable body of evidence that Yamashita did not have ultimate command responsibility over all military units in the Philippines was not admitted in court.
Former war crimes prosecutor Allan Ryan argues that by order of five American generals, General MacArthur, and the Supreme Court of the United States, General Yamashita was executed for what his soldiers did without his approval or even prior knowledge. The two dissenting Supreme Court Justices called the entire trial a miscarriage of justice, an exercise in vengeance, and a denial of human rights.
Following the Supreme Court decision, an appeal for clemency was made to U.S. President Harry S Truman; Truman, however, declined to intervene and left the matter entirely in the hands of the military authorities. In due course, General MacArthur confirmed the sentence of the Commission.
On 23 February 1946, at Los Baños, Laguna Prison Camp, 30 miles (48 km) south of Manila, Yamashita was hanged. After climbing the thirteen steps leading to the gallows, he was asked if he had a final statement. To this Yamashita replied through a translator:
As I said in the Manila Supreme Court that I have done with my all capacity, so I don't ashame in front of the gods for what I have done when I have died. But if you say to me 'you do not have any ability to command the Japanese Army' I should say nothing for it, because it is my own nature. Now, our war criminal trial going under your kindness and right. I know that all your American and American military affairs always has tolerant and rightful judgment. When I have been investigated in Manila court I have had a good treatment, kindful attitude from your good natured officers who protected me all the time. I never forget for what they have done for me even if I had died. I don't blame my executioner. I'll pray the gods bless them. Please send my thankful word to Col. Clarke and Lt. Col. Feldhaus, Lt. Col. Hendrix, Maj. Guy, Capt. Sandburg, Capt. Reel, at Manila court, and Col. Arnard. I thank you.
On 23 December 1948, Yamashita's chief of staff in the Philippines, Akira Mutō, was executed after having been found guilty of war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
Enduring legal legacy
The U.S. Supreme Court has never overruled its 1946 Yamashita decision. The precedent the decision established, called command responsibility or the Yamashita standard, was that a commander can be held accountable before the law for the crimes committed by his troops even if he did not order them, did not stand by to allow them, or possibly even know about them or have the means to stop them. This doctrine of command accountability has been added to the Geneva Conventions and was applied to dozens of trials in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It has also been adopted by the International Criminal Court established in 2002.